Last week I interviewed Chang-rae Lee about his forthcoming novel The Surrendered, and our conversation was so interesting I thought readers of The Book Case would enjoy hearing a few clips. The Surrendered (March 9 from Riverhead) is Lee’s fourth novel. Native Speaker won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1995.
The novel is alternately told from there different perspectives: June Han, who is orphaned as an 11-year-old during the Korean War, then eventually moves to New York City after living in an orphanage in Yongin; Hector Brennan, an American GI who works at the orphanage then becomes a janitor in New Jersey; and Sylvie Tanner, the wife of a missionary who helps run the orphanage.
At 480 pages, The Surrendered moves back and forth from past to present, and graphic war scenes are painful to read. Yet, I couldn’t put down the book. June, Hector and Sylvie are full, flawed characters; you will sympathize with them and despise them; root for them and cry for them. And Lee is a wonderful writer. Reviewers in BookPage have called his prose “rich, riveting, radiant” and “modern, fluent, and full of beauty.” I completely agree.
Learn more about The Surrendered in the March issue of BookPage. Until then, listen to short excerpts from my conversation with Lee:
Why did you title the book “The Surrendered”?
How were you affected by writing violent war scenes?
The church in Solferino, Italy, which is filled with human bones from the Battle at Solferino, is an important image in your novel. Why did you choose to include it in the book?
Henry Dunant’s A Memory of Solferino, the book that inspired the founding of the Red Cross, plays a central role in The Surrendered. Why did this interest you?
And a question for readers: Will you read The Surrendered?
I don’t read many books by celebrities, although Ashley Judd’s memoir (spring 2011 from Ballantine) looks like it could be an exception.
The story will recall both painful childhood memories and Judd’s humanitarian work as a global ambassador for PSI (Population Services International)/Youth AIDS. What caught my attention is that the book's foreword will be written by one of my favorite New York Times columnists: Nicholas Kristof, co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.
In a press release, Judd commented: “I hope that this book will be a call to action as well as a memoir. . . By sharing my own story along with those of the beautiful and resilient people I’ve met in the most desperate places, I want to show how the change we seek in the world must start within us.”
Sounds like Judd will have her hands full during the upcoming months. She’s also starring in movies such as Tooth Fairy—and working toward a Mid-Career MPA at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Who is your favorite celebrity author? I’m a sucker for political memoirs, which isn’t totally unrelated; Judd will collaborate with Maryanne Vollers, who also worked with Hillary Clinton on Living History.
Related in BookPage: Ashley’s not the only Judd with a book deal. Her mom, country singer Naomi, wrote a guide to living well, complete with some Judd family dirt.
The Magician's Book by Laura Miller
December 2008, Little, Brown
The Magician's Book, which details Miller's reconciliation with Narnia, is a thoughtful and heartfelt book, and her exploration of the Chronicles resonates with me as much as the books themselves once did. She discovers that Narnia is big enough to contain not just the adventures she loved as a child, and not just the Christian themes that now appear obvious, but a whole world full of stories and wildness, bravery and treachery, ancient myths and Santa Claus; that loving Narnia allowed her to love all the stories it contained, referenced or built upon, and thus opened up untold worlds.
To me, the best children's books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood—a vast tundra of tedious years—could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or for worse, really matters, and nowhere more so than in Edmund's betrayal.
. . . To the adult skeptic, the evident Christianity of the Chronicles makes their morality seem pat, the all-too-familiar stuff of tiresome, didactic tales. . . . But that's an illusion, fostered by an adult's resistance to what appears to be religious proselytizing. True, Lewis does populate Narnia with semiallegorical figures who represent eternal aspects of human nature in addition to more realistic characters like the Pevensies. The White Witch is bad through and through, almost as uncomplicated as a fairy-tale villain. But she's not the moral ground on which the story's moral battle is fought. Edmund is.
What are you reading today?
On January 18, Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me, a middle-grade novel that’s part mystery, part touching family comedy. The plot centers on Miranda, a sixth grade New Yorker who saves her friend’s life; preps her mom to appear on a game show; and holds down a part-time job at the neighborhood sandwich shop. Fans of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time will love this book; Miranda carries it around, and time travel figures into the story.
Because we couldn’t imagine the excitement Stead felt upon learning of the award, we contacted her for an e-mail Q&A. Below, she describes the moment of receiving a call from the Newbery committee, growing up in New York City and why she writes for kids.
Describe the moment when you were awarded the Newbery Medal.
I was standing in the kitchen of my apartment. [Chair of the Newbery committee] Katie O’Dell introduced herself on the phone and then said something like, “I’m about to tell you something that will change your life.” I think that’s when my feet fused to the floor. She had the whole committee on speaker phone, and there was this wonderful cheer. I couldn’t seem to move. I remember Katie saying, “it’s okay, you don’t have to talk.” But I hope I managed to tell them how grateful I felt—still feel.
What were your favorite books to read as a child and teenager?
I loved all kinds of fiction. I read books by Edward Eager, Madeleine L’Engle, E.L. Konigsburg, Judy Blume, Norma Klein, Bette Greene, Paula Danziger, Anne McCaffrey, Louise Meriwether, Robert Heinlein and Louise Fitzhugh. I also loved Grimm’s Fairy Tales, D’Aulaire’s Myths and Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-kind Family books.
What do your children read today?
My sons read a lot of fantasy, including Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, and Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books. But they also love the Hank Zipzer books, Hillary McKay’s Casson Family novels, Judy Blume’s Fudge books, and many others.
When did you first read A Wrinkle in Time? At what point did you decide to feature the novel in your own book?
I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was 11 or 12. My main character, Miranda, was carrying the book around from day one, but I wasn’t sure for a long time that it would be part of my final story. Wendy [Lamb] and I talked about that, and decided that I would try to deepen the connection between the two books. If it seemed to work, wonderful. If not, I would have to take Wrinkle out.
What’s the best part of writing books aimed at a younger audience?
Middle-grade kids are blossoming intellectually, and they’re less jaded than adults. I think they’re more open to big ideas. Also, kids generally root for a story to succeed, and they’re willing to do what I call “the reader’s work.” I find it much easier to write knowing that I have them for partners.
What were your favorite things to do as a kid growing up in New York City?
Eat Chinese food, see plays, go skateboarding, eat pizza, go ice skating and read. We used to have great block parties in New York City, and I loved those too. I also watched a heck of a lot of television.
Miranda’s mother appears on “The $20,000 Pyramid.” If you could go on any game show, which would it be?
I would be terrified to be on any game show, because I don’t like being put on the spot. But if I had to go on one, it would absolutely be Pyramid.
Do you identify with any specific character in When You Reach Me?
Miranda. Her brain works the way my brain worked at her age.
Have you read or listened to past Newbery acceptance speeches? Are you excited (or worried!) about your own speech?
I’ve read a couple of past speeches in The Horn Book, but that was before I ever dreamed I might be writing a speech myself. I’m excited. And worried.
I’m working on another novel for children. It’s unrelated to either of my first two books, and it’s coming together pretty slowly. I have a feeing that lots of people will write three books before I finish this one.
And a question for readers: What's your favorite Newbery winner?
If you’ve ever read Invisible Man, or you're interested in American literary history, today is a huge day.
Sixteen years after Ralph Ellison’s death, and 58 years after the publication of Invisible Man, editors John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley are publishing the author’s long-awaited second novel: Three Days Before the Shooting. . .
These literary detectives sifted through and interpreted boxes and boxes of Ellison's handwritten notes and pages, typewritten pages and information saved on floppy discs to create this extraordinary book. The finished product is 1,136 pages.
Read a BookPage Q&A with Callahan and Bradley to learn about Ellison’s shift in writing style; the second novel’s plot and characters; and what comes next for the editors after devoting so many years to a single project.
And enter to win a FREE copy of the book (which has a $50 price tag). Tell us in the comments: What is your favorite classic novel? Deadline: Friday at 10 a.m.
On Saturday, the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) announced the finalists for its awards honoring books published in 2009. The awards ceremony will be on March 12. The board of directors of the NBCC nominates and votes on the books. (See a list of that group here.)
Click the highlighted titles for books reviewed in BookPage. See a full list of the nominees, which also include criticism and poetry. Which books are you rooting for to win?
Bonnie Jo Campbell, American Salvage
Marlon James, The Book of Night Women
Michelle Huneven, Blame
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
Jayne Anne Phillips, Lark and Termite
Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History
Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City
Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains
William T. Vollmann, Imperial
Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End
Debra Gwartney, Live Through This: A Mother's Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love
Mary Karr, Lit
Kati Marton, Enemies of the People: My Family's Journey to America
Edmund White, City Boy
Blake Bailey, Cheever: A Life
Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor
Benjamin Moser, Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
Stanislao G. Pugliese, Bitter Spring: A Life of Ignazio Silone
Martha A. Sandweiss, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
Joyce Carol Oates will be honored with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. Read a handwritten interview with Oates in BookPage, in which the author tells us about her inspiration, favorite activity and whether it's possible for humans to be happy.
Congratulations, Erin! You are the winner of our teaser galley of The Passage. (Click here to read our original post about this buzz-generating book.) Please e-mail me at eliza at bookpage dot com in order to claim your prize.
Read a review in BookPage of Erin's favorite “end of the world” novel: The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. Reviewer Becky Ohlsen wrote of the novel: "The book may serve as an indictment of such contemporary threats as biological weapons and unfettered corporate power, but it's also simply a beautiful story."
We’re working to improve our coverage of new books — and we need your help. We’re asking readers to fill out a short survey about BookPage. That might sound boring. . . but there’s more:
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Survey ends February 28, 2010
French graphic novelist Joann Sfar, best known for comics like the acclaimed Rabbi's Cat, is moving into a new medium in 2010. His first project: A biopic of French singer Serge Gainsbourg, which has debuted to rave reviews in France.
Serge Gainsbourg: La Vie Heroique takes a non-traditional approach—using special effects by the team that worked on Pan's Labyrinth, Sfar has created an exaggerated alter ego, played by actor Doug Jones, for the famous singer. The actual Gainsbourg is played brilliantly by French stage actor Eric Elmosnino, while British actress Lucy Gordon plays his muse and eventual wife, Jane Birkin (Sfar dedicated the film to Gordon, who sadly committed suicide in May 2009). Supermodel Laetitia Casta takes a turn as Brigitte Bardot.
Gainsbourg's exploits with women are well-known, but Sfar also takes on his early years growing up as a Jewish child in Vichy France who narrowly escaped deportation. An article in The Independent provides many interesting details on the production—most notably, that Sfar originally asked Gainsbourg's daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, to play her father.
Sfar's next film project will be based on his own work: The Rabbi's Cat comes to the big screen in 2010, as a 2D-animated film aimed at both adults and children. This charming story, set in 1930s Algeria, is about a merchant, his beautiful daughter, and their cat—who, after eating a parrot, can speak. (Sfar told the Wall Street Journal that the cat was based on his own pet.) An exact release date is still to be announced.
Related in BookPage: reviews of Sfar's graphic novels.
Natural disasters force us to think about man vs. nature, a conflict that is no doubt in many of our minds as we watch devastating footage from Haiti.
Considering this, I attended historian Jeffrey Jackson’s talk at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville with great interest. Jackson’s latest book (published January 5 by Palgrave Macmillan) is titled Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910.
The Flood of 1910 is fascinating because it has long existed, in the words of Jackson, “in the realm of myth and legend.” The author argues that because the flood occurred in 1910—between the Dreyfus affair (a political scandal that divided France) and World War I—it has faded into the background of more prominent historical events.
Most Parisians’ knowledge of the Flood is based on postcard images, which remain collectable. According to Jackson, prior to his publication there was only one book on the event—a picture book from 1997—although families do pass down stories of how their ancestors dealt with the rising waters. Jackson explained: “[The Flood] is not totally forgotten, but not totally remembered.”
In Paris Under Water, Jackson explores how communities came together and, against all odds, saved Paris in the midst of collapsing infrastructure, looters and failed electricity and public transportation. Although media images from natural disasters typically represent chaos, Jackson explained that in uncontrollable, dangerous situations “people generally pull together. . . collaborate to save themselves.”
Although he promises no bullet-pointed list of “what to do in a disaster,” Jackson did say that his research has made him think about “how and why communities are viable, how communities form.”
Read Jackson’s book for yourself to learn why the Great Flood of 1910 was a “perfect storm situation,” and how Parisians triumphed over nature to save the city they loved. This book has contemporary relevance and incredible detail. For a preview, visit Jackson’s website: Paris Under Water.
Anyone interested in urban planning, disaster relief or French history would enjoy Paris Under Water — and lucky for you, we’re giving away an AUTOGRAPHED copy. Respond by Wednesday for a chance to win: What is your favorite work of nonfiction?
For another take on what happens after natural disaster, read journalist Jed Horne’s behind-the-book essay on Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City.